Angela Merkel gained a surprise boost to her hopes of retaining power in September’s German parliamentary vote when her Christian Democrat party confounded pollsters with a big victory in a closely watched regional election.
Her main challenger, the new Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, suffered his first serious setback as the SPD failed to turn recent opinion poll gains into electoral success in the gritty industrial region of Saarland.
Opinion surveys had forecast a close race. But, according to the provisional official results, Ms Merkel’s party secured 40.7 per cent of the vote, a sizeable gain on its 35.2 per cent score in the previous election in 2012. Despite the efforts of Mr Schulz, who has local family ties and campaigned vigorously, the SPD lost ground and scored 29.6 per cent, down from 30.4 per cent last time.
Turnout soared from 62 per cent to almost 70 per cent, the highest in two decades, as both the CDU and SPD drew even the less enthusiastic voters to the polls.
While Saarland, with its 1m people, is small in relation to Germany’s 82m population, the result will send shockwaves around Berlin. The SPD had high hopes of transforming its resurgence in popularity under Mr Schulz into votes in the first election since the former European Parliament president took charge of the party in January.
“This raises the question of whether the Martin Schulz effect is only an opinion poll phenomenon or is real,” said Uwe Jun, politics professor at Trier University. “The CDU will see itself confirmed in its relaxed approach to Mr Schulz. We will see.”
Michael Grosse-Brömer, a CDU deputy chief whip, said: “Of course, this is a really great start for us in election year.” Ralf Stegner, an SPD deputy chairman said: “We will have to put our backs into this [coming election]. Opinion polls are one thing and voters’ opinions something else.”
Analysts warned against reading too much into a small region, remote from Germany’s main population centres in which local factors played a big role, not least the strong personal appeal of the CDU’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the popular Saarland regional government head.
She is now almost certain to retain office and is widely expected to extend her present coalition with the Social Democrats.
Analysts had speculated before the vote that an SPD victory in Saarland could pave the way to a coalition with the Left that might set a precedent for the national government. But in the event the Left, like the SPD, lost ground, falling to 12.9 per cent from 16 per cent in 2012.
The election was also an embarrassment for the Green party, which lost its seats in the regional assembly after failing to reach the 5 per cent hurdle, and for the liberal Free Democrats, who fell short in a drive to re-enter the assembly. The Greens polled 4 per cent and the Free Democrats 3.3 per cent.
The rightwing Alternative for Germany scraped 6.2 per cent of the vote, well short of its 10 per cent aim, but still enough to take the party into its 11th regionally assembly and leaving it on target to enter the Bundestag in September, the first rightwing populist party to do so since the Nazis.
Attention will now focus on the only other two regions to hold elections before the Bundestag poll — Schleswig-Holstein and Northrhine Westphalia — which vote in May.
There will also be intense interest in the next national opinion polls to see if the Saarland result has an impact. Mr Schulz has presided over an unprecedented 10-percentage-point gain in surveys, putting the SPD neck-and-neck with the CDU and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union. The latest survey, from the Emnid agency, had the two parties on 33 per cent.
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.